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Myths and Misconceptions about Lung Cancer

Myth: Only smokers get lung cancer.

While most cases of lung cancer are linked to smoking tobacco, as many as 20% of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who do not smoke or use any other form of tobacco (approximately 16,000 to 24,000 Americans every year). Although anti-smoking campaigns implemented in the 1980’s have led to a decrease in smoking-related lung cancers, rates of lung cancer are up among non-smokers.1,2

Myth: Breast cancer kills more women than lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women in the U.S. In women, lung cancer is the second most common cancer, with breast cancer occurring more frequently. However, more women die from lung cancer than from breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers combined.2-4

Myth: Lung cancer only happens in older adults.

Although lung cancer is most commonly diagnosed among people 65-74 years of age, it can occur at younger ages.5

Myth: If you get lung cancer as an elderly person, there is no use in treating it.

Elderly patients are more likely to have other conditions (comorbidities), such as heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may impact treatment recommendations. However, several studies have demonstrated that the age of the patient alone should not determine whether a treatment is appropriate, as elderly patients experience benefits, including increased survival, with treatments such as chemotherapy, surgery, and targeted therapies.6-8

Myth: Surgery for lung cancer causes it to spread.

Lung cancer spreads through the bloodstream and the lymphatic system, when cells from the original tumor break off and travel through the vessels to other places in the body. Surgery does not increase the likelihood of the cancer spreading, or metastasizing. Surgery is used in some patients to remove the malignant (cancerous) tumor from the lung.2,9

Myth: Lung cancer is a death sentence.

Although lung cancer causes the most cancer-related deaths in the United States, the death rates have been declining over time, falling on average 2.2% each year between 2004 and 2013.3,5  The prognosis, or forecast of the disease, is unique to every individual with lung cancer. When looking at statistics, researchers look at large numbers of individuals. These numbers can be distressing, as lung cancer survival rate is lower than other types of cancer. However, the statistics do not necessarily predict what will happen to an individual.10

Myth: Non-smokers don’t have to worry about lung cancer.

As many as 20% of deaths caused by lung cancer occur in people who do not smoke or use any other form of tobacco (approximately 16,000 to 24,000 Americans every year). Non-smokers are 20-30% more likely to develop lung cancer if they are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work. In addition, there are several other factors that can increase the risk of developing lung cancer among non-smokers, including exposure to radon gas, air pollution, workplace carcinogens (substances that can increase the risk of developing cancer), and inherited genetic mutations.2,11

Myth: Lung cancer can’t be treated.

Lung cancer can be and is treated with a number of treatment options available. The treatment for lung cancer is based on the stage of the disease and the category. Depending on the category and the stage of lung cancer, treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted treatments, and/or immunotherapy.12

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: March 2019.
  1. Thun MJ, Hannan LM, Adams-Campbell LL, Boffetta P, Buring JE, Feskanich D, Flanders WD, Jee SH, Katanoda K, Kolonel LN, Lee IM, Marugame T, Palmer JR, Riboli E, Sobue T, Avila-Tang E, Wilkens LR, Samet JM. Lung cancer occurrence in never-smokers: an analysis of 13 cohorts and 22 cancer registry studies. PLoS Med. 2008 Sep 30;5(9):e185.
  2. American Cancer Society. Accessed online on 8/17/16 at
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed online on 3/29/19 at
  4. Medscape. Accessed online on 8/18/16 at
  5. SEER Cancer Statistics Factsheets: Lung and Bronchus Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD. Accessed online on 3/29/19 at
  6. Hurria A, Kris MG. Management of lung cancer in older adults. CA Cancer J Clin. 2003;53:325-341.
  7. Blanco JAG, Toste IS, Alvarez RF, Cuadrado GR, Gonzalvez AM, Martin IJG. Age, comorbidity, treatment decision and prognosis in lung cancer. Age and Ageing. 2008;37(6):715-718. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afn226.
  8. Maione P, Rossi A, Sacco PC, Bareschino MA, Schettino C. Treating advanced non-small cell lung cancer in the elderly. Ther Adv Med Oncol. 2010 Jul;2(4):251-260. doi: 10.1177/1758834010366707.
  9. NCCN Guidelines for Patients – Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, Version 1.2015. National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
  10. Lung Cancer Alliance. Accessed online on 8/1/16 at
  11. American Lung Association. Accessed online on 8/2/16 at
  12., a Program of CancerCare. Accessed online on 8/1/16 at